Standing among the Dale Chihuly glass sculptures at the New York Botanical Garden, Harlem Academy seventh grader Adonis Beckford approaches the podium and recites his poem, “Sapphire Star.” He and three other Harlem Academy students had been selected as winners of a poetry competition pairing young voices with the artist’s glass installations in one of New York’s showcase summer exhibits.
Acclaimed poet and National Book Award winner Jacqueline Woodson had over 150 submissions to read and evaluate. Each entry was presented with no identifying information so the poems would be judged on merit alone.
“Harlem Academy was the only school to have multiple winners,” said Victoria Lewis of NYBG. “We were blown away by the level of sophistication of these poems. Their words have a raw energy that captured the bright colors and unique forms of these glass creations.”
These students’ achievement grows from the critical role that writing poetry plays in Harlem Academy’s academic program. Through a partnership each year with the Poetry Society of America (PSA), five professional poets visit the school repeatedly over a six-week period, working with all middle school students on drafting, revising, and performing original poems.
“Writing poetry doesn't come naturally to me,” says Adonis, “but I think it has made me a better writer. Thinking like a poet helps me organize my thoughts so I can express myself better.”
Former English teacher Whitney Wood, who conceptualized and developed the Visiting Poets Program with PSA, adds, “poetry becomes a celebration of self-expression and community as the students share, listen, and grow together. Their voices matter, they are powerful, and they are heard.”
The New York Botanical Garden’s CHIHULY exhibit runs through October 29. The winning students’ poems are displayed alongside the pieces that inspired their work. This exhibit offers an audio guide in which Ms. Woodson reads the students’ poems and explains why she selected them as contest winners.
Special thanks to the Poetry Society of America for their partnership with Harlem Academy’s Visiting Poets Program.